Dumbed down discourse: How much are the media to blame?

In 1992, author Bill McKibben argued that people were living in the age of missing information. While that may have been true 20 years ago when television news was at its height, surely things have changed with the explosion of the Internet and the constant access to information.

McKibben’s thesis was that even though people had 24-hour access to information via television, most of it consisted of infotainment. Can the same be said of our 2012 on-demand lifestyles? In a word, yes. While there is some very good journalism out there, a person has to be committed to finding it.

An example might be in order. While I consume a significant amount of news from 24-hour news channels to the daily local paper and from a perusal of favourite media Web sites to news magazines, I do not typically troll for information on weekends. Thus, if a major event occurs during that time, I have to catch up Monday morning.

Information: MIA

Such an event took place in mid June. On June 14, 2012, three guards were killed and one injured in a shooting at the University of Alberta. What I learned on Monday morning when I switched on the television was that a person had been arrested. Although the reporter diligently recounted the arrest, he made only oblique comments regarding the identity of the suspect and the crime itself. I admit that I came late to the story, so I went online to find the background narrative. What was particularly curious about the stories posted on local Edmonton new sites was that while they linked to various updates and even some interesting interactive tools with maps and something called “storyify” – which consisted of tweets from bystanders and reporters – I had great difficulty finding out the details of what actually happened.

One particular story seemed promising: “Relinked: HUB Mall story shows frantic need for news during crisis.” However, the article only recounted how often the story was relinked on social media sites. With time and patience, I did learn the details of this horrific crime, but in the process, I also learned that it was infinitely easier to discover that Johnny Depp and his common-law wife had gone their separate ways than it was to understand the crime in question.

As interesting as crime stories are, they are not necessarily the stories that we consider part of our right to know in a democracy. For me, the things we must know more about are the policy platforms of the political parties vying for public office. We need to know whether promises of debt reduction are viable; we need to know the consequences of taxing the rich; and we even need to know about the health of our potential leaders.

Reporting Election Campaigns

This takes me to the coverage of election campaigns, something that I have studied and analyzed over the better part of the past three decades. Despite all the technological advances, the increase and proliferation of information and the speed at which information is relayed, the sad fact remains that political coverage has not changed much in all that time. The media have certain frames for looking at campaigns. Those frames dictate the way in which we get information about policies and leaders.

This is not to say that it is all the media’s fault. Far from it. Political parties have learned how to fuel the media machine by offering ready-made stories and narratives that journalists will gladly take. However, what is surprising, to me at least, is the seeming lack of competitive spirit amongst journalists. Out of convention or politeness or the fear of getting it wrong, pack journalism is as alive and well as it was when Timothy Crouse first coined the term in 1972.

Take Me To Your Leader

The most common election narrative is that of following the leader. Since the advent of television news, journalists have become accustomed to reporting the election as presented by the official leader’s tours. This is not surprising, as news agencies will spend tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of having their correspondents follow the leader. As a result, there is an economic incentive to follow every movement of the leader’s tour. Thus, the coverage tends to look the same, as not only are journalists exposed to the same script, they are also in close quarters with each other, thereby making the pack seem all the more unified.

As well as the select few journalists who ride the campaign trail, countless others in newsrooms also cover the campaigns. Here again, there are a relatively small number of story narratives that get out.

First, there are the horse race stories. These centre on poll results, which many news organizations sponsor. Once again, if you are going to pay for something, you had better get your money’s worth and cover the story. There are stories on strategy that focus on why parties act the way they do or how they plan to proceed in the campaign. Other narratives include discussions about advertising or scandals on the campaign trail. All totalled, these campaign-driven stories made up 85 per cent of the CBC’s election coverage and 81 per cent of CTV’s election coverage in 2011. The remaining coverage focused on election platforms and policy.

Looking at the assessments of the political parties showed that each party got different treatment. While both the Conservatives and Liberals received substantially more negative than positive evaluations (for the Conservatives it was 4:1; the Liberals 3:1), the NDP received many more positive than negative evaluations. In fact, the NDP coverage was twice as likely to be favourable than unfavourable. Some would suggest that the reason was the NDP’s surging poll numbers. However, closer examination of the horse race revealed that the New Democrats received relatively little campaign coverage. Where the NDP shone was in the evaluations of the leader, with 74 per cent favourable. In contrast, Harper’s evaluations were 85 per cent unfavourable and Ignatieff’s were 80 per cent unfavourable.

Double Standards

In the past, the reasonable explanation for negative press attention to a particular leader usually had something to do with whether or not he or she was in government. Government parties, having a record to defend, have both the most coverage and the most critical attention paid to them. This occurred during the 2004 election when Paul Martin was given a rough ride by the media. However, this is not always the case. For example, in the 2000 campaign, while Jean Chrétien received the most attention, it was Stockwell Day who received the lion’s share of criticism. The explanation at that time was that prior to the campaign, the Alliance Party had been doing well in the polls and thus had a chance at electoral victory. Journalists, especially those who chose to focus on Day’s religious beliefs, argued that the public had a right to know and question the background of a leader surging in the polls. That would be fair game if journalists applied the same standards to all parties surging in the polls.

Given this logic, however, what is the explanation for the near universal praise heaped on Jack Layton in 2011? Certainly, a lot had to do with his inspirational recovery and perseverance in the aftermath of cancer treatment and hip surgery. Because things were going so well in the campaign, he had a cheery disposition that made him difficult to criticize. Even Sun News, which launched during the campaign, was not immune. In its bid to show that it was unbiased, the morning news show The Roundtable invited Jack Layton and Olivia Chow on as guests. Rather than provide hard-hitting questions about policy, hosts Alex Pierson and Pat Bolland asked softball questions about what Layton thought of his poll numbers. Near the end of the interview, Chow showed solidarity with the female on-air staff by taking off her jacket and showing her arms, which garnered her additional praise from the network anchors. (In its early review of Sun News, Maclean’s magazine called the network “Skank TV” because most of the female hosts wore sleeveless dresses).

It would be too easy to suggest that the reason for the uncritical coverage of the NDP had to do with the ideological beliefs of the journalists themselves. The Alberta election of 2012 showed that the pack could be just as fawning of a right-of-centre political party as it was of a left-of-centre one. The difference however, is that in the last week of the Alberta campaign, media coverage shifted and examined Wildrose candidates and policies much more closely than it examined the NDP federally. From outside the province, the one event that seemed to change the media coverage was Danielle Smith’s comment during an all leaders’ debate hosted by the CBC that the science was not settled on climate change. The media did not let this go unchallenged, and it dogged her until the end of the campaign. While the media may have been content to give the party positive coverage until that point, it seemed Smith crossed the line into challenging the journalists’ dogma on climate change. It seems then, that journalists’ personal feelings do influence how and when they provide critical coverage to the different party leaders. There seems to be much less tolerance for conservative ideas than for liberal ideas.

In contrast, the biggest controversy that faced the NDP was a decades old story that Layton may have been caught up in a sting that involved Toronto massage parlours. While the story had the potential to derail the NDP’s fortunes, some alleged the Conservatives were trying to smear Layton with dirty tricks. As for more-intense scrutiny of NDP policies, there was scant attention paid to NDP plans to hire more doctors and nurses, double public pensions, decrease small-business taxes by 2 percentage points or cap credit card fees. Thus, the media failed, not because it did not dig up scandals on the NDP, but because they allowed the personal appeal of Jack Layton to be the defining characteristic of his campaign. Much more coverage should have been devoted to the candidates who were running under NDP banners, especially those, we later learned, who had not ever visited the ridings they were about to represent. In this respect, the voters are given a shallow interpretation of events rather than the serious analysis of party platforms. Even if these aspects were not considered newsworthy, surely an exposé into Layton’s legislative or personal history was warranted, just as the media thought Stockwell Day’s religious beliefs had been in 2000.

To answer the title of this article, I do think that we are witnessing a dumbing down of political debate. However, this dumbing down is not unique to our time or our technology. Ironically, it is the fact that we demand news every second of the day that makes journalists unable to pause or investigate in greater detail. The onus then is greater on the consumer to seek out the voracity of the claims and promises made by political actors. It also requires the public to be skeptical of media claims of objectivity and reporting only the facts. Journalists still have significant power in selecting what angle of the story to highlight, what to report and what to ignore. Unfortunately, journalists still tend to be more critical of right-of-centre parties than they are of left-of-centre parties, and therefore we must continue to ask about the values and beliefs of journalists themselves.

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Lydia Miljan is the Arts and Science Program Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science Department at the University of Windsor. She is co-author of Hidden Agendas: How Journalists Influence the News and Cross Media Ownership and Democratic Practice in Canada.

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